Every winter I think about snow. I am a chionophile, someone who thrives in cold weather, but it’s a few years since I last set off for France or Italy in search of crystalline air and the soft, glittering drifts my children used to throw themselves into. I never went for the skiing but for the walking, snow racquets – like small tennis racquets – attached to my feet. And, of course, the cheese.
I discovered many of my favorites – Beaufort, Vacherin and reblochon – in a hotel opposite Mont Blanc that offered a two-tier cheese trolley at dinner every night. But this year I’m thinking about British and Irish cheeses. So much has happened to them I wanted to catch up.
Over the centuries, the quality of British cheese has been up and down. The 15th century, according to Ned Palmer in his book A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, was a golden age. Hard Parmesan-like cheeses – good enough to impress Italians – were sold abroad on the back of the wool trade.
Much later, industrialization took its toll, and then there was the Second World War and rationing. For decades after the war, British cheeses had a poor reputation compared to those of France and Italy, but the 1980s brought a real flowering.
Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden originally sold wholefoods but after a couple of years, in 1979, a cheese shop managed by the visionary Randolph Hodgson was added. Hodgson found there was n’t much cheese to sell so he traveled the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland trying to find farmhouse cheeses. It was a labor of love, and it shows what love can do; now there are 700 British cheeses.
A month ago, I ordered British and Irish cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy and The Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire. Unwrapping wedges, sniffing and sampling, I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing, and I have used some new favorites in today’s dishes.
Killeen goat’s cheese, made in County Galway, is a Gouda-style cheese, floral, nutty and sweet with a gentle tang of goat’s milk. Now that I’ve found it, I’m never letting it go.
I’ve wasted years not eating Old Winchester, a big, assertive cheese from Wiltshire that’s a cross between cheddar, Parmesan and Gouda. My family fought over the last morsel.
Winslade is a gorgeous Vacherin/Camembert cross made in Hampshire and can be baked, just like Vacherin, to create your own mini fondue.
If you want to go on a British and Irish cheese adventure, get A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British & Irish Cheese, also by Ned Palmer. This has shoved my much-loved copy of French Cheeses: The Visual Guide… to the side. My British cheese journey has begun.
If you’re looking to get adventurous with your cheese choices, take a look at the following recipes.
Best recipes using cheese
Baked Winslade cheese with charcuterie and pickles
Winslade is like Vacherin, in that you can bake it until it’s soft and runny, then scoop the warm insides out with a spoon, or dip little potatoes in it. Served with charcuterie and cornichons, it will transport you somewhere snowy.